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Art Criticism Is Dead

Post #1847 • October 10, 2019, 5:55 PM • 3 Comments

[Image: Installation view of the David Hockney deal at the Van Gogh Museum. Taken without permission from ]

Installation view of the David Hockney deal at the Van Gogh Museum. Taken without permission from here.

I saw the David Hockney show at the Van Gogh Museum close to the end of its run in May, and it was, without question, the most cynical exhibition I've ever seen in my life. Having missed the jam-packed Hockney to-do at the Met and feeling a little sorry about it - so many people had called it brilliant - I found myself in Amsterdam and saddled with some urgency to catch up. No such urgency was warranted.

One could find a few formal strengths here and there. I myself am interested in delineating forms using a saturated line, though I think I can do it better than him. (Lest this sound boastful, any half-decent artist drawn to this particular problem could as well. For that matter, I can think of a dozen brighter lights than me whose run-of-the-mill production would blow any Hockney landscape off the wall: Emily Nelligan, Graham Nixon, Ying Li, on and on.) Other than that, it was a spectacle of ruination. Working on an iPad has destroyed Hockney's color sense, particularly around the green of the landscape. He tried to make up for this by having the walls of the exhibition painted Corn Yellow, which warmed up the room but the juxtaposition made his greens look even icier. (A giant wall decal quoted Hockney saying that if van Gogh were alive today, he would be using an iPad. This is likely correct, though it wouldn't be to make art, but to post sad mental health updates to Twitter, having been made to ingest a psychotherapeutic cocktail strong enough to stun a cheetah.)

Since it's 2019, and the art world is commanded by the most aggressive identitarians to come along in the arts since the establishment of the Reichskulturkammer, the exhibition took pains to remind everyone of Hockney's homosexuality. The season of Spring is like nature's erection, quoth the master, right there on the wall at the entrance. But we're not talking Robert "Here's A Photo of Me Pleasuring Myself with a Bullwhip" Mapplethorpe kind of gay, artistically transgressive and key to the work. We're talking about barely relevant, boring suburbanite camp that won't distress the tourists so much that they leave the premises without buying the exhibition catalogue.

As bad as the paintings were, they looked like inspiration itself compared to the iPad "drawings." Some of these were printed out eight feet high, veritable billboards of soul-sucking indifference. Others had been printed a couple of feet across, then hung two-by-seven on the wall, two inches apart. Each of these printouts - I refuse to call them "prints" - had been numbered "4/25" by hand at the bottom by the artist. That laid bare the scheme: show the 4/25 works at the Van Gogh Museum, put Numbers 5 through 25 on the market with the claim that the series had been shown at the Van Gogh Museum, and stash Numbers 1 through 3 in a vault to await the long-term payout.

Suddenly aware that I had been steamrolled by the corporatist juggernaut in which private galleries collude with public museums to convert spurious trash into money and prestige, I realized that art criticism was dead. Yeah, I know, Irving Sandler dropped this truth bomb on me five years ago.

Art critics have been sidelined by the market. In the 1950s, when there was really no audience outside of our own group, taste was made by artists. De Kooning was considered one of the great artists because artists thought he was a great artist. In the ‘60s, art critics, particularly the younger art critics in debt to Greenberg and writing for Artforum, became arbiters of taste. And then in the late ‘60s the collectors and the dealers became the tastemakers. Now a handful of billionaires are determining taste by commanding attention.

But there in Amsterdam it finally detonated. Delicious Line sort of went on hold until a couple of weeks ago, when people who cared about the project or me personally got it into my head that it was worth continuing, at least to them.

In the interim, the Whitney Biennial happened. People made the same criticisms that they've made about it since I started paying attention to the art world in the '90s, namely that it was full of faux-edgy pablum designed to flatter the politics of the anointed cultural class. But because the art world is commanded by the aforementioned identitarians, identitarians fill the show, and they tried to use their identity to deflect the criticism. This more or less culminated in an op-ed in the New York Times by Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang that protested,

At a time when inequality and white supremacy are soaring, collective opinion is born at monuments, museums, screens and stages — well before it’s confirmed at the ballot box.

Yet those who have for decades been given the biggest platforms to interpret culture are white men. This means that the spaces in media where national mythologies are articulated, debated and affirmed are still largely segregated. The conversation about our collective imagination has the same blind spots as our political discourse.

The six most influential art critics in the country, as selected by their peers, are all white, the writer Mary Louise Schumacher found in a recent survey of more than 300 working visual arts critics. Almost all of them are men who have written for legacy publications for at least 20 years.

Their recommendations included,

Old-school white critics ought to step aside and make room for the emerging and the fully emerged writers of color who have been holding court in small publications and online for years, who are fluent in the Metropolitan Opera and the rapper Megan Thee Stallion.

I got angry about this because Megan Thee Stallion performs some of the most insipid booty rap that you're ever going to hear. She actually makes Cardi B sound talented. I wish that Missy Elliott would walk into this video, grab Megan and Nicki Minaj by their necks, and bang their heads together. Speaking of Missy, if you watched that video, you can cleanse the mediocrity away with her new one, which is extraordinary. As for opera, I don't know it at all except as the subject of a few Bugs Bunny cartoons.

I also thought something like, "Oh God of My People, please let me step aside. Your servant is weary from carrying this heavy corpse of art criticism, and wants nothing better than to move the burden to Elizabeth Méndez Berry's and Chi-hui Yang's respectively brown and yellow shoulders. Seriously, you two, get this thing out of here. I didn't kill it, but oh boy is it ever dead. Vaya con Dios."

I already wrote about the Schumacher report. Around 207 people answered the question about race, and five of them were Hispanic. Given what we know about American demography, a more representative number would be 34. Given similar assumptions about Asians, you would expect twelve, but the survey found six. Those are disappointing numbers. On the other hand, 213 people answered the question about political alignment. In a country where 36% of the population identifies as conservative, you would expect to find around 75 of them. Instead it found one. One! The disparity of racial representation is bad. The disparity of political representation is so atrocious that its rate is literally incalculable.

And yet, because of the aforementioned identitarians, these numbers prompted multiple discussions about the need for whites to remove themselves. The possibility that the whole field had gone completely out of sync with the rest of American political life, and maybe its cultural life along with it, never got mentioned. Neither has the possibility been raised that when those six white influential art critics finally do step aside, they are going to be replaced by no one, because nobody really wants this stuff except for a diminishing cadre of savvy yet out-of-touch artsy types - not the broader public, and not the people who call the shots inside the field under examination.

So why keep at this? Right now it's largely because people who are important to me want me to keep at it. I can produce copy smart enough for the smarties at The New Criterion and I think we're doing good work at Delicious Line in spite of everything. (We just passed 400 reviews this month, thanks to a steady stream of talented contributors and generous donations.) Ultimately the best reason to do it is the pleasure of doing it, which is why I make art as well, though increasingly I get the sense that the effective life of the art world ended in 1972. But that's a consideration for another post.



Sara Stites

October 11, 2019, 8:22 PM

That’s a depressing rant. I get it... but somehow something comes along that renews my enthusiasm. A fruitful conversation with a fellow traveler may be in order.


Scott Bennett

October 12, 2019, 11:58 AM

I find myself agreeing with you about Hockney, and in this case, going against my usual rule: I don’t think I need to see the work in person to know how mediocre it is. Whenever I find someone enamored with Hockney, especially the later work, I am suspicious. And yes, it does appear that taste in the art world is ruled by money and has been for a while now. Art criticism has become what so many wanted it to become, a great pluralistic clusterfuck. Having said that, I think there is some good that can come out of including a lot of bad art with the good and raising it up as equal. But it may take a long time. In the meantime, mediocrity and lax taste rules. Go see the Dzubas show for something to cleanse your palette.


Dana Gordon

October 12, 2019, 7:17 PM

It's long past time to establish that there is in fact a separate art world where people actually make art. Unfortunately many of the real artists still hope to be recognized and championed by the identitarians and are afraid they'll be left out. But they are already out, just by dint of making real art.



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